An iconic bottle of Heinz’s tomato ketchup, made possible by the tomato. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The BLT (bacon-lettuce-tomato) would be a sad sandwich if not for the tomato. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

What would shakshuka be without tomatoes? Where would B & L be without their T? What would Pittsburgh do without its ketchup? They (and we) all owe thanks to one wild, weedlike plant native to South America’s northwestern coast. That not-so-distant relative of the modern tomato eventually found itself in Central America and Mexico, where it was domesticated and called tomatl in Nahuatl (Aztec) and subsequently deemed the tomate in Spanish. Take a spin through the history of the fruit described in 1544 by Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli as “flattened like the melrose and segmented, green at first and when ripe of a golden color.”

■ The tomato was a relative newcomer on the Mesoamerican table. No archaeological evidence prior to 1492 indicates that tomatoes were consumed by ancient Andean people, even though the tomato originated in their mountains. However, it was readily adapted and incorporated, perhaps thanks to the tomato’s similarities to the tomatillo, a plant native to present-day Mexico. (The same can’t be said for the tomato in the Old World; like most New World plants arriving in the 1500s, the tomato was at times regarded with as much caution as curiosity).

■ The tomato didn’t arrive in North America until the early 18th century. The first known reference to the tomato in what is today the United States appeared in William Salmon’s Botanologia, completed in 1710. Salmon, an English herbalist, noted that he saw tomatoes growing in the Carolina colonies. Whether the tomatoes were brought from Europe, where they had been growing for years, or arrived from the Caribbean with farmers, colonists or slaves, the tomato spread rapidly throughout the South and eventually reached Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey by the early 1800s. At the same time, the tomato spread along the Mississippi River, transported by colonists moving westward and reaching the West Coast (even Hawaii) by the 1830s.

■ Despite its rapid expansion, the tomato was not quite as beloved in the early 1800s as you might imagine. The editor of Philadelphia’s Germantown Telegraph, Philip R. Freas, wrote that tomatoes were “a very poor garden decoction, with a bad smell.” Another Pennsylvania resident, J.B. Garber, wrote in the late 1820s that “hardly two persons in a hundred, on first tasting it, thought that they would ever be induced to taste that sour trash a second time.” And S.D. Wilcox, editor of the “Florida Agriculturist,” wrote in 1836 that the tomato “was an arrant humbug and deserved forthwith to be consigned to the tomb of all the Capulets.”

■ Eventually, the tomato gained popularity across America, with many British, French and other European recipes being printed in newspapers, agricultural periodicals and cookbooks. Mary Randolph’s seminal 1824 work “The Virginia House-Wife” featured 17 recipes with tomatoes, followed by Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife” (1829) and N.K.M. Lee’s “The Cook’s Own Book” (1832).

■ Today, tomatoes are enjoyed the world over. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States is the second-largest producer of tomatoes, behind China, which began growing tomatoes as early as the 1500s.


“Ripe Red Tomatoes For Sale Here”: 1869 advertisement for Githens & Rexsamer tomatoes in Philadelphia. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Tomato trivia

Mr. Nix goes to Washington: In 1886, John Nix, an importer of various products, had to pay a 10 percent duty on his tomato haul (due to the Tariff Act of 1883). Mr. Nix protested, correctly claiming that the tariff only applied to vegetables and not fruit such as tomatoes. Mr. Nix continued to fight, taking his argument to the Supreme Court where, in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden , Justice Horace Gray ruled: “Botanically speaking tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people . . . all these vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The tomato has been called many things through the years:

The “tumatle from Themistitan” (“Themistitan” being Tenochtitlan, an ancient Aztec city-state)

Apple of Peru (in Italian, poma peruviana)

Love apples (in French, pommes d’amour, or in German Liebesapfel)

Golden apples (in Latin, mala aurea or in Italian pomo d’oro)

Wolf peach (from the plant’s botanical name Lycopersicon, meaning “wolf peach” in Greek)

Barbarian eggplant (in Chinese, fan chieh)

In 1984, NASA sent more than 12.5 million tomato seeds into space, to be retrieved six years later by the space shuttle Columbia. The seeds were then distributed to students around the world, who did side-by-side experiments comparing the fruits of earthbound and space seeds.

kara.elder@washpost.com

Sources: “American Tomato: The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Tomatoes,” by Robert Hendrickson; “Blue Corn & Square Tomatoes: Unusual Facts About Common Vegetables,” by Rebecca Rupp; “The Great Tomato Book,” by Gary Ibsen. “The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery,” by Andrew F. Smith; “Tomatoes,” The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. “Tomatoes,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, edited by Andrew F. Smith.